Issuing a subpoena against eNews to identify criminals interviewed on air about their plans to target the Soccer World Cup infringed media freedom and freedom of speech, the South African Press Council said on Thursday.
“The police, using laws that existed under apartheid, are seeking to circumvent the journalists’ right to report without fear and the public’s right to know by issuing this subpoena,” said council vice-chairperson Bewyn Petersen in a letter published in Business Day.
He was responding to Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s move to subpoena two eNews journalists to reveal the identity of the men who made their criminal intentions known in an interview aired last Friday.
A source linked to the story has since committed suicide.
“When the story broke I found myself hoping that e.tv would resist the pressure from the police … I am dismayed that I have not seen anyone in government, including the opposition, oppose this action.
“If the police are successful, it may prevent journalists from having access to similar situations in the future and may even endanger their lives. Should this happen, we will lose one of our most fundamental rights — the right to know – and it is our right to decide for ourselves,” Petersen said.
E.tv has declined, on legal advice, to say how it plans to respond to the subpoenas to reveal its sources. Its news editor, Ben Said, and reporter Mpho Lakaje have to appear in court on Monday if they fail to comply.
The channel said on Tuesday that a man found dead in Soweto was a go-between who had put the reporters in touch with the self-confessed criminals who were interviewed.
It implied in a statement that only he had known their true identities.
Hawks spokesperson Musa Zondi said the 43-year-old man was found dead in the outside toilet at his home in Soweto. He appeared to have poisoned himself and left a suicide note asking Lakaje to take care of his teenage daughter. Zondi would not confirm newspaper reports that named the man as Lucky Phungula.
The Hawks initially believed the dead man was one of the men shown on air with his face masked. They were continuing their investigation into the case.
Police ministry spokesperson Zweli Mnisi said on Wednesday the police had not withdrawn the subpoenas and were still investigating the matter. He called on the public to come forward with any information that could help police identify the men interviewed on air.
The police’s reaction to the eNews programme, screened last Friday, has triggered a debate about the state’s use of section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act to force journalists to reveal their sources. — Sapa